More Than A Year Into COVID, Emmy FYC Season Is Still All About Drive-ins and Virtual Screenings

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On a late April evening this year, dozens of cars sat parked in front of a large, inflatable screen outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for a pop-up drive-in experience. Such socially distanced screenings have seen a resurgence in these pandemic times, but this wasn’t any ordinary drive-in.

This crowd consisted of Emmy voters, who had all made the trek to watch an episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef” while snacking on such artisan dishes as Korean fried chicken with a kimchi dipping sauce, a pupusa with braised jerk pork and cheddar masa, and popcorn sprinkled with chicken-skin furikake and spiced caramel.

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It was a twist on the Emmy For Your Consideration events of yore, when Television Academy members and their guests would trek to a venue to watch an episode of a contender, sit through a panel with series stars and producers, and then gorge on free food and booze in the lobby. Except this is 2021, a year after the Television Academy shut down all in-person FYC events, and we’re still dealing with limitations due to COVID-19.

As more people receive their vaccine, the country is slowly beginning to open up, but large-scale in-person gatherings are still a way off. That’s why the Academy put very narrow parameters on what can or can’t be done this year: Either virtual screenings/panels, or drive-in events. That’s it.

The virtual events have their benefits, as National Geographic’s Chris Albert, executive vice president of marketing strategy and global communications, points to the reach that comes with expanding a premiere or FYC event far beyond the old way of keeping it confined within four walls. “Whereas a pre-COVID glitzy premiere in New York or L.A. could be packed with maybe 500-600 locals, with virtual events the number of invitees who can attend is infinite,” he says.

Virtual panels also make it easy to include a show’s entire cast without having to worry about flying in talent or coordinating schedules.

“With the series starting up production for its second season in the summer, our talent in front of and behind the camera are all over the country,” says Alison Hoffman, president, domestic networks at Starz. “However, with virtual events, we are able to bring them all in the same place and host meaningful conversations.”

Both Netflix and Amazon, which have built extravagant experiential venues for their Emmy campaigns in the past, opted to stay with a fully virtual FYC strategy this year. Netflix’s “FYSee TV” content hub is once again the focal point of this year’s campaign, featuring conversations with the casts of such shows as “The Crown,” “Bridgerton,” “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Kominsky Method,” as well as panels centered on certain themes.

Amazon Prime Video’s “Beyond the Screen,” which kicked off May 1 with an evening devoted to the stars, crafts and music of Steve McQueen’s anthology series “Small Axe,” also includes panels with the casts and producers of shows from “The Underground Railroad” to “The Boys.”

“It’s been an interesting year of experimentation, in which we have all had to become lighting, tech and sound experts,” adds Henry Goldblatt, vice president of awards at Showtime. “Virtual events allowed us to take some big swings — as well have the opportunity to reach voters in their homes.”

But there are limits to how much of an experience a virtual event can really be for voters. Nothing is allowed to be mailed to Emmy voters — instead, digital vouchers worth no more than $30 are emailed to members. Most are being sent for food delivery services such as Postmates or Uber Eats, although Nat Geo included one for Barry’s Bootcamp.

There’s also the question of whether the novelty of watching panels in your pajamas has worn off. Zoom fatigue is a real concern. “I’m just worried that everybody is done with being in their house and just wants to be traveling and outside,” says one awards consultant.

An Academy spokesperson says audiences for the virtual events are “equivalent to an in-person year, plus additional members are able to watch virtual events as VOD on screening platforms whenever convenient. Attendance was lighter at the beginning but heating up as the season is moving to the halfway point.”

Red-carpet premieres, which aren’t limited to the same kind of sanctions that TV Academy imposed, are starting to make a comeback, but in careful ways. FX’s recent “Pose” premiere boasted a very limited invite list, while Freeform made a splash for its “Cruel Summer” premiere by inviting attendees to watch the show from the balconies of rooms at the Beverly Hilton as it was projected on a screen above the hotel pool.

“As marketers, we immediately had to get innovative and creative really quickly,” says Joe Ortiz, senior vice president of content marketing at Freeform.

Ellen Stone, NBC Universal Television and Streaming’s executive vice president, entertainment brand strategy and consumer engagement, isn’t opposed to virtual events: “There’s a higher approachability to these experiences and these events than there has been in the past because you are from your home,” she says. “You can bring your dog to a function, and people won’t look and say, ‘What is going on?’”

But when it came to doing an in-person “Top Chef” drive-in event, she notes that it was an “opportunity for us to maybe not go whole hog because we are slowly coming back, but give [Emmy voters] the opportunity to experience ‘Top Chef,’ almost in a way that they had in the past.”

Although drive-ins are the only in-person events allowed during the nominations-round campaign, stage interaction is still limited. Attendees must stay in their vehicles (except to use the restroom), and food is delivered to car doors. In the case of “Top Chef,” Stone says the event made sense because, coincidentally, the challenge on that episode of “Top Chef” involved the contestants creating dishes for a drive-in crowd.

“The fact that ‘Top Chef’ was doing a drive-in, we ran with that,” Stone says. “Panels are still great, they’re still viable, we love it. But this lets us differentiate even more from what everybody else is offering for their FYC events. It takes people out of their homes, and they have been in their homes long enough.”

HBO and HBO Max similarly focused heavily on drive-in events, holding 10 events between May 14 and May 21 at the Rose Bowl. And Disney is similarly bringing together its Disney Plus, Hulu, ABC, Disney TV Studios, FX and Nat Geo brands together for a drive-in series at the Rose Bowl between May 25 and June 16.

“While the circumstances of the past year have challenged us in many ways, they have also helped us think differently and forced us to get even more creative,” says Shannon Ryan, president, content marketing, Hulu and General Entertainment.

Every marketer believes live events — including premieres, festivals, FYC events and more — will come back in a big way once they are finally allowed. But even after in-person audiences return, most believe there will be a hybrid of in-person and online audiences.

“I think you’ll have real-life events but they’ll be produced for the virtual world in a way that maybe they weren’t before,” Ortiz says. “If the shift towards digital has taught us anything, it’s the audience is in control.

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